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The Weight of Being
How I Satisfied My Hunger for Happiness
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- Trade Paperback $16.99 $23.50 CAD
- ebook $11.99 $15.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 31, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Kara Richardson Whitely thought she could do anything. After all, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro-three times! But now she’s off the mountain and back home again, and there’s one thing she just can’t manage to do: lose weight.
In many ways, Kara is living the life of everywoman, except that she’s not everywoman because she weighs 300 pounds and is tormented by binge eating disorder. Her weight is a constant source of conflict and shame, as the people from every corner of her life, from her coworkers to the neighbors down the street, judge Kara for the size of her body. When it becomes just too much to tolerate, Kara turns to therapy and weight-loss surgery, a choice that transforms her body-and her life.
Kara’s story is one of living as a fat woman in America, where fat prejudice is rampant despite our nation’s pandemic of obesity. In this fresh, raw memoir, Kara reveals this epic contradiction, and offers a revealing comparison of life before and after radical weight loss.
The doctor’s hand moved across a thick red line on a graph. She pressed firmly down and made a dot.
My daughter, then five years old, had just slid over the line into the overweight swath of the growth chart. I wanted to curl up into my flesh, all three hundred pounds of it.
“You don’t want to be there,” the doctor said gently to Anna. “It’s just a little over, but you might want to try little things to cut back and move a little more.”
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I thought while stroking my little girl’s blonde hair, a nod to the Scandinavian roots on my side of the family. She had my gray-blue eyes. She had my skin, which was set to sunburn at the slightest sunscreen slip. She had my piano-perfect fingers, and now, it seemed, she was about to inherit my weight problem. I couldn’t let that happen.
But she’s not fat, I thought. She’s not like me. I can’t let her be like me. My weight was all consuming; it was the thing I most wanted to lose, yet it had stuck with me the most tenaciously for the past three decades, regardless of how many times I signed up for diet programs, bought new exercise equipment (my latest, a rowing machine, was currently collecting dust in my office), or wrote down resolutions—“give up sugar” and “exercise every day”—or goals—“lose 100 pounds this year” and “fit into a size 12 by the wedding”—in my weight loss journal.
I could mostly rationalize away all those failed efforts. After all, a raft of studies proved how tough it was to lose weight and keep it off. And I was relatively healthy (I didn’t have diabetes, heart disease, or any other syndrome associated with fat people) and somewhat fit, so I could brush aside the fact that I was powerless to change my weight.
But now, my fat was encroaching on my daughter’s life. I wanted to defend her against the scourge that made everything from sleeping to moving difficult. I couldn’t control my eating. How would I control hers?
But I made Anna’s food choices for her. I was the mother, the person saying “yes” when she asked for another helping of Goldfish crackers. I was the one caving in to her nightly requests for ice cream. I loved ice cream. We all did. But what my family didn’t know was that I was dipping into the half-gallon container while they were out during the day, and then secretly replacing the empty container and starting all over again the next day.
My relationships with food and my body were twisted, torturous affairs. The kind that filled me with angst and immobility. And now I was passing this on to my daughter.
“We’ll do better,” I told the doctor. But as I said it, I worried the intention fell flat, like any of my weight loss pursuits, announcements, and campaigns that started with me buying a whole lot of things—from fat-free this and that to a series of exercise videos and weight loss hypnosis CDs—and would go nowhere.
I gathered my purse and walked Anna out the door. We stopped at the reception desk only to collect a sticker for her bravery. I tried to smile but felt sick inside, knowing that Anna’s problem started with me.
“Mommy, can we get a treat here?” she asked, as we walked past a neighboring pharmacy.
“Not today, sweetie,” I said, as we reached the elevator.
“But Moooooooooom,” she cried, drawing disapproving stares from passersby.
I knew all about those stares. I had been bullied about my weight since I was nine years old. People made fun of my protruding belly, my expanding rear. It made me a big target, the butt of jokes.
I put those thoughts out of my mind. Anna wasn’t me. I smiled at my daughter, who was still looking at me beseechingly. “Okay, but something healthy,” I conceded. I grabbed a Rice Krispies bar from my bag, hoping it said fat-free somewhere on the label.
Later that evening at dinner with my fit, marathoner husband, we talked about how we wanted to stay healthy as a family.
“Oh, boy,” Chris said, almost in a joking manner, the same way he did if he discovered all the cookies were missing. It was a comment he made as if he’d heard it before.
Anna looked down at her rice and chicken. I didn’t want her to be self-conscious. We never sat down at the table to discuss my weight, so why would we be doing that for her?
I tried to quickly diffuse the conversation. “Well, how about we start saving sweets for the weekends? How about we sign Anna up for swim classes?”
“Okay,” Anna said.
We left it at that.
A few nights later, I helped Anna on with her pajamas. “I’m fat,” she declared.
“Honey, you’re not fat. I’m fat,” I blurted without thinking.
“I knew that. I just didn’t want to hurt your feelings,” Anna said, looking away as if she was afraid she was going to get in trouble for speaking the truth.
At school, she and her fellow kindergarteners had been trying on the word fat for size, seeing how their classmates reacted to the epithet. A few kids, even one heavier than Anna, already dubbed Anna fat, she had confessed. I was enraged, told the teacher, and had the girl apologize to my daughter. I worried they were calling her that because of how I looked.
“It’s about being healthy,” I said, gulping away a tear. I had been an overweight kid, a too-big-to-miss target for bullies since the age of nine, when my parents divorced and I hid in the pantry, binging to drown out their screaming. When I was twelve, I put on forty pounds over the summer after my brother’s almost-adult friend sexually assaulted me. Fat was my protection but also my curse. The more life hurt, the more I ate and, of course, the more I gained. The more I gained, the worse I felt.
I had to keep Anna from ever feeling the way I did. I needed to do something this very moment to show my daughter a healthy way of living. She should not have to experience the weight of simply being. My weight of being. It buried me.
If she was going to feel good about herself, change had to start with me.
I was forty-one and weighed three hundred pounds. I had weighed less. I had weighed more. But this was where my body seemed to want to be. Three hundred pounds. Or maybe this was where I wanted to be? Either way, my weight defined me and had defined me for years, decades filled with agony and a healthy serving of self-loathing.
Anna’s doctor would have said I was morbidly obese. I had the kind of fat that bulged over the waistline of my jeans and into my lap. The kind of fat that made plastic lawn chairs—and other kinds of seats—beg for mercy when I tried to squeeze into them. The kind of fat that forced people to notice my girth before they noticed me.
I knew I was more than a number, more than my weight. Yet being fat was a part of who I was, part of how people knew me. For years, I believed that I didn’t want to be fat and tried to swat down pounds with every diet and fitness regimen imaginable. I even went so far as to train for and hike Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak—three times.
Once, after a 120-pound weight loss to a low of 240 pounds on my six-foot frame, I climbed Kilimanjaro to prove I was invincible.
Less than a year later, I gained more than half of the weight back while pregnant with Anna. Desperate to feel in control of my weight, I returned to the mountain. I was out of shape, ill-equipped, and in absolute denial about my food issues—so much so that I binged the night before the seven-day trek. Spoiler alert: I didn’t make it to the top that time.
On my third and last trek up the mountain, I weighed three hundred pounds, yet made it to the summit—at more than nineteen thousand feet—succeeding against the bets of the snickering porters. I hiked as much as fifteen hours a day to conquer the more than fifty-mile push up the mountain, and I didn’t drop more than a dozen pounds. I returned home just as I had left: fat.
Though my body seemed to like being three hundred pounds, I was never happy with this state. Therefore, I was never happy, carrying around that extra flesh, flesh that sat on my belly, hips, and thighs, that sagged from my arms like bat wings.
I was not just fat but big. Six feet tall. Like my mother’s, my weight tended to settle on my lower half. If I met someone while sitting down, they often couldn’t tell how heavy I was. I didn’t want them to see that, when I stood, I needed to push on something, the table in front of me, the window ledge next to me, the seat of the chair below me, to give me enough leverage to land on my feet without tipping. Then all was revealed. The weight that I carried down below was stuffed into size twenty-eight pants that really should have been size thirty-two, but most stores didn’t carry that size. I was always pushing plus-size limits.
Naked, my scars were visible. Remnants of an accident from when I was eighteen months old and boiling water from a flip-top kettle spilled over me. They start just below my neck and extend down between my collarbones and breasts, making plunging necklines a problem. Sexy and voluptuous were not possibilities anyhow because I was flat on top, with no extra flesh to help me there.
What were less visible were the scars I carried inside. Depression had also weighed me down since I was a kid. As much as I tried to shut it out, I was never able to ignore the voice that overshadowed everything I did. Don’t work out—you should be working instead. The voice, my longest-standing frenemy, said everything I did was a complete sham. That I was a failure before I even started the day. The voice, I suspect, kept me at that weight, even though I desperately didn’t want to be there.
And yet, there I stayed. Simply put, I was ginormous.
With the marching orders from Anna’s doctor and a five-year-old daughter who was just about normal weight—for now—I needed to defy that voice, defy what my body seemed to want—and do something drastic.
When I was pregnant with Anna, my first child, I was transformed from someone who had hiked to the Roof of Africa to a person who could barely walk across the living room floor. Sciatica, a nerve condition, sent lightning bolts down my leg with every step. When I tried to heal my body with yoga, dropping into a wide-angle sitting bend, my belly touched the floor in an embarrassing lump, and I inevitably injured myself and regretted an overzealous practice that put me further out of commission, again. The ice and snow came the last four months of my pregnancy, so even though I loved to walk, I was afraid to put one foot in front of the other outdoors.
All the while, I wondered what kind of parent I would be. I’d always had a complex relationship with my parents, especially my father, who essentially abandoned us after his divorce from my mother. When he did show up, he caused trouble and seemed annoyed his kids were around.
I joked my child would be better off raised by wolves than by me. The prospect of being responsible for another life was daunting, intimidating in a way that no one talked about. If I couldn’t take care of myself—and by that I meant my weight—how could I take care of a child?
Meanwhile, I gave myself permission to eat for two, slurping milkshakes (calcium!) and devouring cheeseburgers (protein!) all the way to a seventy-pound-plus pregnancy gain.
Despite all this, Anna came out perfect, at seven pounds eleven ounces.
I landed at three hundred pounds.
When I was pregnant with my second daughter, Emily, I gained only fifteen pounds, all of it lost with the birth, and landed at three hundred pounds, again. That time, not having put on any additional weight, it was a victory.
My husband didn’t gain an ounce. And he never did.
I’m married to a marathoner, a man who runs hours at a time just to get a run in. The father of my two girls is perfect when it comes to weight. Food in. Food out. He has ice cream and BBQ ribs when he wants to. He exercises when he wants to. That is his life.
When he took two hours for a run, I got maybe fifteen minutes to walk around the block while he showered. I complained about the imbalance but rarely did anything to rectify it or demand my own time to exercise.
These habits, the ones that kept me immobile and roiled in anxiety, that kept me eating to stuff down anxiety and depression, were filtering down to my daughter.
Sure, I could have put us on a family diet. But I found that the more I dieted, the further I got from real food. I made smoothies with protein powders and artificial sweeteners and chemicals to make up for carbs and fats and real nutrients. I felt very processed. And incredibly hungry after restricting myself. I didn’t want to trigger that never-ending cycle for Anna—dieting and binging and binging and dieting—only to end up with one result: more weight gain.
While the girls were little, my weight and my life overwhelmed me. I’d buy processed food and uninspired produce at Target when I ran out to buy diapers for Emily just to get dinner on the table. For all my obsession with food, cooking was a chore. Sure, watching the Food Channel while on the elliptical inspired me, but my culinary ambitions shrank when I powered through the grocery aisles while keeping Anna from grabbing everything she wanted and Emily from wailing loud enough to be heard in the women’s shoes aisle.
With two kids, I lived on autopilot, trying to manage a full-time job as a marketing coordinator and part-time gig as an author and motivational speaker, a family, and a life while sleep deprived. I survived on empty calories—clearing off the girls’ plates, thrusting my hand into the cereal box—and generally whatever food was in front of me. Stuffing my face made it easy to forget that all I wanted was to make it to the girls’ ever receding bedtime, when I could finally lie down and get some rest, at least until one of them woke up again.
Chris’s bedtime routine involved chasing the kids around the house. Or, rather, holding the baby and singing “Attack Baby” while Anna squealed with joy.
“Come on, let’s get on with it. Bedtime. Stories. Sleep,” I’d said.
“You don’t have to be so aggravated at everything,” Chris would say.
“But I do.”
I often thought that if I had more money, more something, I’d be happier, thinner. I could buy better food, I would grill the most tender organic meats. I would get more help, maybe even hire a personal chef. I needed help. Mountains of laundry rose on my bed each day, ready for folding, only to be swept to the floor when the next load arrived until I was forced to send my kids off to school in wrinkled garments.
Every spilled sippy cup was a pain in my outsized ass, and, hurried and hassled, I made sure my thin husband knew it by grumbling while I sopped up mess after mess. Truthfully, I caused many of the messes as I rushed through the dishes and life. I’d knock over a glass or the dish soap, and suds would seep out and drip to the floor.
If only I could clean up my own mess. Stress was eating me alive, and I in turn was eating everything. Not so much binging as saturating myself with food to cope with the constant noise in my mind. I never actually felt hunger because I used every opportunity to eat, compulsively, gobbling my way through the day: muffins with the girls’ breakfast. A doughnut in the rare quiet moments after they left for school and day care. A cereal bar on the train into the office. A fully loaded coffee and an orange-glazed scone when I got to work—just to tide me over until lunch. Chipotle steak salad and chips at the afternoon meal. Munchkins with my three o’clock coffee. Roasted nuts on the train home. Another cereal bar for a snack. Roasted chicken for dinner. Ice cream for dessert.
Yet chicken nuggets was all I could manage to prepare for my family for dinner. I was suffering food exhaustion, too disgusted and bloated to be civil to my sweet husband, too frazzled and overwhelmed to provide a healthy example to my impressionable children. My rage boiled over like an unattended pot of Kraft Mac & Cheese noodles.
My husband wanted to make some changes, too. He wanted to move from our creaky condo with the grumpy neighbor to a house with a yard where our children could play. But we couldn’t afford to move. We were stuck. A binger in every sense of the word, I had troubled financial habits—as poor as my eating habits. My past was marred by frantic payday loans that enabled me to spend beyond my means.
When we got married, I didn’t think ahead to what life would be like with children. I didn’t know Chris, and I needed to talk about roles—who would do what. Instead, we just fell into doing certain things. I never pushed for those conversations, maybe because whenever I looked at Chris, his James Dean good looks, his career ambition that led him to the executive track at work, his athleticism, I worried that I didn’t deserve him. How could he be mine? We had been friends who grew into something more.
Know this about Chris: he sees the world differently. Maybe that’s what allowed him to love me. And maybe because he loved me—he’s the one who gets my jokes—I did an outsized portion of the child care and work around the house to feel worthy of him. I’d absorb a kid’s snow day, a sick day, a last-minute diaper blowout for that. I knew my husband loved and appreciated me, but I couldn’t help wondering whether my weight somehow served him.
One evening when Chris unloaded the dishwasher and left the clean Tupperware on the counter, the only counter in our kitchen available for chopping, plating, stirring, mail sorting, and more, my head felt like it would explode. Did he leave it for me to put away because he had the upper hand in our relationship? Did he think he could just dump the grunt work on me?
“If you’re leaving that for me to do, I have other shit to do,” I snapped, and threw open the cabinet door so hard it nearly smacked me in the head on the rebound.
My hands and mind tried to match and stack Tupperware like a fast-paced puzzle never to be completed. Nothing would fit. The containers that I used for leftovers, leftovers I often ate myself, teetered, guaranteeing disaster for the next person who tried to pull one out—usually me.
Just like the grocery store, the kitchen also gave me amnesia. I forgot why I was there and what I needed to do, even if it was something simple like stepping in for a pair of scissors. I’d spot the Nutella below the windowsill, and instead of grabbing the shears, I’d open the next drawer down for a spoon, unscrew the lid, and scoop away at the hazelnut.
My kids enjoyed Nutella on toast.
I enjoyed it straight up.
Nutella was my yes food. If I saw something—a latte, pancakes, crepes—made with Nutella, I automatically wanted it. Having it in the house was dangerous. But after Anna tried it on graham crackers and fell in love with it, I didn’t want to deny her access.
Other times, while loading the dishwasher, I’d notice the Rice Krispies bars jutting out of the cabinet. I’d grab myself one, maybe two, sometimes three, crinkling the wrappers and putting them in the garbage, forgetting all about the dirty dishes. In that moment, I ruined all that I was striving for. All I might have gained from my rare workout that morning.
It was almost as if any task that required me to be in the kitchen came with a requisite consumption of at least five hundred calories. And I found myself in the kitchen a lot.
I liked to blame food, or my husband, for my problems, but maybe I was the problem. Was I on the verge of losing my kids, my husband, my everything, all because of my weight?
Six weeks after Emily was born, I started to work again. My fingers got back into the rhythm of the workday. One afternoon, as I went for my afternoon caffeine reboot, I noticed the coffee ring stain on my desk had been reestablished. It was nice to have a cup and be productive in peace.
That was until Emily’s day care called and said she had developed a troubling cough and needed to be picked up right away. I grabbed the stroller and walked out the door, crossed the street, and all at once I heard a click, a whooshing sound, then a boom. It was as if space and time had stopped.
Was it a nail gun? But I didn’t see construction nearby.
Or maybe an air-powered wrench removing lug nuts? But I was well away from Andre’s auto mechanic shop.
And then, a sharp pain stabbed my back, as if someone was poking me with a dagger. But no one was there.
“What the… Ow!” I screamed. I swiveled around, my back pulsating. I was afraid to put my hand on the spot where the pain was coming from, but I had to press down, to somehow make it stop hurting.
Could a bee have stung me?
I reached below my poly-blend blue shirt, the one with a nice Greek Isle perfectly-cloudless-day feel to it, and touched where my shirt met my too-taut waistband. At once, my fingers were wet. It wasn’t sweat. It was blood.
That sound. I knew what it was. It was a gun. The long echo. The click. The boom. I’d been shot.
Summit, New Jersey, is a town where Mercedes-Benz and Volvos alternate in the school drop-off lines; a place where landscapers descend in a swarm to tend postage-stamp-sized lawns, blowing every stray leaf out of sight; a place where towering oaks surround stone-fortified estates owned by Wall Street wizards.
There weren’t shootings in Summit. But I’d been shot, and as I reached for my phone, my hands were shaking so badly it took me three times to type in 911. Across the street, I saw kids running around the corner.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“This sounds crazy, but I think I was just shot,” I said. “It might have been a BB gun.”
“Madam, where are you?”
I was standing at the corner of Walnut Street and Beauvoir, one hand resting on Emily’s empty stroller, not even a block from my house.
“I could be wrong, but this is so weird. My back is bleeding and it really hurts. I heard a bang.”
As I said the words, I wondered whether sleep deprivation had caught up with me. Would I be the laughingstock of the town: not just the fat lady, but the fat, crazy lady who imagined she was shot? An obese Chicken Little.
Just as I started to doubt myself, three cop cars pulled up, surrounding me. A detective approached and then, with my permission, examined the hole in my back.
Officers canvassed the block looking for a culprit. One detective stayed with me and the ambulance pulled up. By the time I had finished telling the detective what happened, a female officer appeared across the street holding a sawed-off pellet gun in one hand and gripping the arm of a seventeen-year-old named Dan with the other.
Two other teens joined him at the curbside, where they were instructed to sit and wait. Heads down, they looked at the ground, not me. I still couldn’t believe that I had been shot. That someone would do this to me. Someone would use my backside for target practice. But it was true and it was awful.
I yelled across the street, “What the fuck were you thinking? You weren’t. You’re damn lucky my daughter wasn’t in this stroller. I wouldn’t be so calm as I am now, you little shits.”
I felt the urge to kick all three of them where they sat, but the officer pulled me back. At that point, I didn’t care that they were teenagers; I wanted at them. My heart raged inside, pounding as if I had just sprinted down the street.
A rescue squad member offered to take me to the hospital up the hill, but I knew it would be faster for me to walk there, like I did each time I was in labor. Besides, it was a mere flesh wound. The damage was more emotional than physical.
- "Written in brief, punchy chapters...Those curious about the pros and cons of weight loss surgery will find some answers here, though Whitely makes it clear that her decision is a personal one and that others might take different paths."—Kirkus
- "Whitely's raw honesty puts you directly in her shoes."—HelloGiggles
- On Sale
- Jul 31, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Seal Press